MIT Technology Review on Drones

A fascinating and oftentimes chilling piece by Fred Kaplan in MIT’s Technology Review, titled “The World as Free-Fire Zone“, detailing the rise of the use of drones by the US military and particularly the CIA, especially how they’ve morphed from supporting regular military operations into a tool for killing people in countries that the US is not officially at war with, and killing people who are suspected of being militants, but not proven to be so (the so-called ‘signature strikes’).

There seems to be no formal list of the criteria that a suspected terrorist must meet before he can be targeted by a drone. Nor is there some quantitative technique for measuring an official’s degree of confidence in this signature. Those who pick the targets have a database of correlations between certain types of behavior and the presence of terrorist leaders. But it’s a judgment call, and there’s usually no way—or desire—to check afterward whether the judgment was good or bad.

The overreaching use of drones in loosely targeted killings is clear, but the article goes beyond this and explores a complex situation with a fairly even hand: the ability of drones to reduce civilian casualties compared to previous forms of attack is something that’s often not discussed (if you know anything about strategic bombing in the Second World War, you’ll know that the promise and reality of air power has caused a truly enormous amount of civilian suffering in the past – Hamburg, Dresden, etc.).

It also goes into detail about the truly complex chain of command behind drone operations – a single drone is supported by as many as 43 personnel, backed by a 66 person intelligence unit. It’s not just one pilot flying around, making decisions by him or herself. Which leads to the conclusion that:

The rise of the drone is not a case of technology run amok. It is the result of human decision: of political calculation and, too often, strategic evasion. Judging from its expanded use over the past five years, the drone’s chief danger is that it makes war too easy—so easy that commanders, including the commander-in-chief, can fool themselves into thinking they’re not fighting a war at all.

This. This is the crux. Just as the gun made it easier to kill by reducing something that was close-range and visceral to something that anyone with a hand could do, just about, so do can our tools of war lead us into using them in ways we never would have used earlier tools. With unpredictable effects.